Girolamo Fracastoro: The Christian Father of Modern Pathology

Until the 19th century the favoured explanation for the origin and spread of disease was the miasma theory. This followed the ancient authors, who believed that disease was caused by bad smells. It’s the reason malaria has its name – mala aria, bad air. The germ theory of disease only became dominant in the 19th century, when medical science was able to confirm that disease was spread by micro-organisms. It is nevertheless a surprising fact that some physicians from the 16th century onwards came very close to a germ theory of disease. One of these was the classical Humanist and polymath Girolamo Fracastoro.

Fracastoro became a student at the University of Padua in 1501, the same year as Copernicus also enrolled at the university. He was interested in a wide range of scientific subjects, pursuing research and writing on medicine, pathology, physics, geology and astronomy. He also had good relations with the Church. In his long poem De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (Concerning the Contagion and Contagious Disease), published in 1546, Fracastoro advanced a modern theory of the spread of epidemics. He believed they were spread by little particles or seeds, and identified three different types of illness.

The first were those spread by person to person contact, such as leprosy, scabies and respiratory tuberculosis. The second were spread by utensils, beclothes and other items, with which infected people had come into contact. These were the vectors – the causes of transmission – of some of the fevers. The third type were diseases such as smallpox, that could travel great distances.

A similar explanation for the spread of disease was later advanced in the 18th century by the French Academy of Science to explain outbreaks of plague. These later physicians considered that it was spread by small spores. In this instance Fracastoro was clearly far ahead of his time.

Apart from his medical writing, he was the first to recognise and describe the magnetic poles, and one of the first to propose the modern origin of fossil beds. He can thus be considered a true Renaissance Christian man of science.

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